A Peter Gelb Misstep

To further postpone my long-promised, hotly awaited modern-dance entry, I offer some pontifications on the Metropolitan Opera's new production of what it bills as "John Adams's 'Doctor Atomic.'" That formulation omits Peter Sellars as co-conceiver of the opera and assembler of its collage libretto, though Sellars is credited on the first page of the program.

Peter Gelb decided to jettison Sellars's original staging, first seen in San Francisco three years ago and since, I believe, in two other cities, and to replace it with a new one by Penny Woolcock. Ms. Woolcock, a documentary television filmmaker in England, is making a career of reworking Adams operas sans Sellars. Her film of "The Death of Klinghoffer" was a big success; her production of "Doctor Atomic," her first-ever opera staging, is a big failure.

The reasons are simple, and speak to either Gelb's misjudgment or hubris. Maybe he dislikes Sellars's work; maybe he dislikes Sellars. Maybe he didn't want a production by someone closely identified with Gerard Mortier and the new New York City Opera. Maybe he just wanted (at considerble expense, though the production looks cheap) to do something different. What he got was sharply inferior to the Sellars original.

Ms. Woolcock's "Klinghoffer" was successful because she transformed it from a static meditation to a hard-hitting, realistic film, full of intense acting seen in telling closeups. "Doctor Atomic" is also static, especially in the second act, which begs to be cut (apparently Ms. Woolcock wanted cuts, which Adams successfully resisted). Those interminable scenes with Kitty Oppenheimer and her Indian maid Pasqualita drag on and on; maybe they would have worked with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, originally intended as Kitty.

On the big stage at the Met, Ms. Woolcock looked lost. People stood around (or were caged in tiered boxes on movable walls, shades of Mark Morris's "Orfeo ed Euridice"; maybe they were the same rig). Or they ran about frenetically, distractingly and to no obvious purpose. Whatever skills she has in closeups were vitiated by the vast scale.

The lack of tension -- exacerbated by the earnest ponderousness of some of the music, at least as heard in Alan Gilbert's lush but slack conducting -- seeped away. Sellars and Adams deliberately chose not to end with a literal bang (the program insert warning that the production would contain "loud noise" was pretty funny given that this was supposed to be the ATOM BOMB) but with a recorded scream and an eerie silence, followed by a female Japanese voice begging for water, a sign of radiation poisoning. At the Met all that was undercut by a lack of clarity as to what was happening when. Sellars's staging of this scene, critcized by some, was far superior, with everyone in sun glasses lying down, filling the stage and facing the audience, and then bathed in sickly green light.

The Met's set, hemmed in by those walls, looked cramped and unatmospheric. The design was by Julian Crouch, who did the recent Met "Satyagraha," and featured a similar spherical "gadget," based on the original, that was seen in San Francisco. But the rear was dominated by an awkward assemblage of fabric draped over some sort of support structure. Maybe this all was supposed to evoke the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; in the end the fabric struggled upwards to dimly suggest the explosion.

Adrianne Lobel's San Francisco set was far more evocative. The rear of the stage was open, with a low horizon of mountains; one always felt the vastness of the New Mexico sky. The bomb hung ominously. Lucinda Childs's fussy dances intruded (here the Met's choreography, by Andrew Dawson, and the sternly static American Indians in full costume were better). But Sellars's direction of the principals was generally more pointed, especially the remarkable bodily contortions of Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer, the titular doctor, in the incontestably greatest scene in the opera, a setting of John Donne's sonnet "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," which closes the first act.

Otherwise, the Met cast equalled San Francisco's, with Finley again singing beautifully and Eric Owens as the blustering General Groves returning from 2005, and telling contributions from Sasha Cooke, Richard Paul Fink and the rest.

That said, what was saddest about this disappointing evening was how it masked the true beauties of the Adams score. "Doctor Atomic" has its flaws, but it is a great opera, and  Gelb, Woolcock and the Met don't let us realize that.

October 14, 2008 9:50 AM | | Comments (2)


I saw the Met production last evening. Luckily, I had just seen the DVD of the Adams-Sellars original from the Amsterdam Opera. This minimalist new take on"opera"was the creation of both artists and to dismember it by leaving out Sellars was to lose the opera. In the Met the voices were under amplified, the singers faced the audience and not each other. The staging and sets were static, the dancing elements of Adams' music lost on stage, the lighting dim and murky, the principals wandering around in suits. Gerald Finley's magnificent aria at the end of Act 1 was completely obscured. Shame on Gelb, and what persuaded Adams to abandon his partner in authorizing this production? Finally, what a loss to the Met audience that the New York premier should mask as this effort. Luckily there is a fine high definition DVD available of the Amsterdam production of the Adams-Sellars opera as conceived.

For 8 years I was the protege of John Dexter in Hamburg and then at the MET, beginning with Vespri. John was also a conceptualist who couldn't really supply stage direction, which fell to me on 12 productions. Occasionally, he would interfer with less than good results.
Gelb's idea of another conceptualist who admits to "viewing productions over several months to figure out how to get people on and off stage" is even more egregious than the Dexter appointment.
Leave the stage to stage professionals. This contract was only marketing nonsense and not professional treatment of the position of GM.
Brian Gray


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